JUST TO LET YOU KNOW THAT I'M ALIVE
Stories of women from Western Sahara
Emanuela Zuccalà in El Ayun
Thanks to the American foundation The Aftermath ProjectPublished by the Italian weekly magazine Io donna on April 14, 2012
This article won the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Without Borders Austria, December 2012
Leggi la versione originale in italiano qui
"Can I see your hair?". Elghalia Djimi tidies her melfah up, the colorful Saharawi women’s traditional headscarf, preparing herself for the pictures. I’ve glimpsed an unusually blonde lock of her hair, so I asked that childish question. She’s not offended and reveals some sparse tufts, that seem burned. "I have no hair anymore" she says and smiles as if to try to protect me from something terrible. "They tortured me, tying me upside down on a plank and pouring a liquid on my face. It smelled of alcohol, medicine, salt water and urine. Only three months later they allowed me to wash my body: my hair fell out in clumps”. Elghalia smiles again: "Now I'm ready for the pictures."
Reaching El Ayun by coach from southern Morocco, the several military checkpoints create an atmosphere of war at low voltage. Journalists are not welcome here; officers in plainclothes are following me and the photographer every minute of the day. El Ayun, a town of two hundred thousand people with orange buildings and the desert flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, is the capital of Western Sahara: Moroccans call this land "the southern provinces" while the Sahrawis, the original inhabitants, claim it as their legitimate state.
The Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria, where the Italian aid worker Rossella Urru was kidnapped with two Spanish colleagues, are only half of the story. The other half unfolds in the silence of Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco since 1975, soon after Spain withdrew its colony. After a 16 year war between Morocco and the Polisario Front - the liberation movement of the territory - a fragile ceasefire was signed in 1991 under the control of the UN mission Minurso that planned to organize a referendum for independence. Twenty one years have passed and the UN hasn't even been able to compile the voters list.
Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Moroccan police continues to repress the Saharawi people who dare to demand their independence waving the Polisario flag. People like Elghalia Djimi, vice president of the association of victims ASVDH and an icon of non-violent resistance. She looks incredibly free from anger despite the three years and 7 months she spent in Moroccan jails without any trial, her eyes blindfolded and under the constant threat of rape and death.
"I was kidnapped one day in 1987” she says. “A UN committee was coming to El Ayun, I had hidden a letter in a sock in order to denounce arbitrary arrests against Saharawis. In prison I was tortured with electric wires and I was forced to parade naked in front of the soldiers. Before the advent of the internet, the world had not heard anything at all about our sad stories”.
The Saharawi NGO Afapredesa - a sort of local Amnesty International - has counted that, since 1975 to present day, 4,500 Sahrawis have been victims of enforced disappearance and detention without trial. 500 of them are still missing: among them is Elghalia Djimi’s mother. In December 2010, Morocco for the first time admitted they had taken by force 640 Sahrawis, but according to the victims’ families, the Moroccan Commission for Reconciliation hasn’t done any investigative work nor have they listened to survivors.
The places of terror have names as Pccmi in El Ayun, Agdez and Kalaat Magouna in southern Morocco: they were the secret prisons of King Hassan II, who has always denied their existance. And the mass graves around these places are still overflowing with corpses.
Soukaina Jid Ahloud, 56, knows this story very well. Feverish eyes with kajal eye-pencil make-up, she’s the matriarch of all the former female prisoners. I meet her in the town of Smara, after a three hour trip in the flat desert with a driver who, soon after my arrival, was arrested (and thankfully released a few hours later) for putting me in touch with Soukaina.
"I was held from 1981 to 1991" she tells me. "When I was released, I discovered that my youngest daughter had died from starvation because there was no one who could take care of her... And the Moroccan authorities forced my husband to divorce. They arrested me again some years later, with my son: the soldiers forced me to walk on his back, I could feel his pain but couldn’t do anything".
Soukaina shows a picture where she’s thin as a skeleton, stretched in an effort to smile: "A guardian in Kalaat Magouna prison took it: he was a good man”. This beautiful, intense woman is crying now, her voice trembling. She says that the UN pretends not to see the barbarism that is consuming this territory. The Minurso mission costs 63 million dollars a year, employs 510 people, both military and civilian, but has no mandate to protect human rights here.
Degja Lachgare, 54, spent 11 years of her life in prison, from 1980 to 1991. She was arrested again in 2009: she was the only woman in the "Group of 7", a Saharawi delegation who defied Morocco by making an official visit to the Polisario Front in Algeria, and she’s still on probation. Policemen in civilian clothes stay outside of her house in Raha neighborhood, El Ayun, through out my long visit.
In Kalaat Magouna jail, when she was 22 and her husband was dying in war leaving her with no children, Degja’s torture was cooking bread every night to feed Moroccan soldiers. Every single night for 10 years. Her account is poignant, full of details that at first I cannot make sense of: the quantity of flour she used, the only light from a rope soaked in oil, the gas freezing in the bottles during winter, the coal always getting dry. But later, watching her cook lunch for her sisters and for me, looking at her gently handling the fragrant loaf baked in the oven, I understand: making bread is the most intimate gesture, the most familiar and womanish. Degja had to repeat it endlessly for her torturers.
"The most common threat the Moroccan police make to Sahrawi girls is: we will make you not a virgin" recounts Najat El Baillal, 22, living in Smara. "Exactly as they did to our Sahara, deflowered by Moroccan invasion in 1975." To her and to all the young Saharawi girls I have met here, the wall built by Morocco in the desert - 2,700 kilometres barrier between the Saharawi refugees in Algeria and the ones living here - is just an ongoing rape.
Leila Dambar is a modern Antigone. For a year and a half she’s been asking Morocco authorities for an autopsy on the corpse of her brother Said, who was killed at age 26 by police under very murky circumstances. "We demand only the truth. We have the right to know exactly when, how and why he was killed". Said's face covers a wall in Leila’s living room, in a tragically joyous expression. His body is still lying at the morgue: Moroccan authorities are still denying the autopsy and Leila's other brothers have lost their jobs, because of their insistence. Leila cries, and keeps on asking: “Why?”
With 20 thousand other Sahrawis, Said participated in a large protest in October 2010 in the Gdeim Izik site, 12 kilometres from El Ayun: the popular event was considered as the real beginning of the Arab spring. It was an encampment of tents, a non violent Saharawi protest to demand social and economic dignity in Western Sahara: in fact only 200 Saharawis are employed in the phosphate mines in Boucraa, compared to 1,700 Moroccans, and Sahrawis are also excluded from the farming in greenhouses around Dakhla, a personal feud of King Mohammed VI. In Gdeim Izik camp, Saharawis have been very careful not to claim independence. Nevertheless, on 8th November 2010 the Moroccan army dismantled the camp using weapons and tear gas. According to Moroccan authorities, there were 11 deaths and 159 wounded among the security forces and two civilian deaths among protesters. The Polisario Front, on the contrary, claimed that 36 Sahrawis were killed, 723 wounded and 163 arrested. 23 Saharawis are still being held in the Moroccan Saleh prison and have yet to have a trial.
Inside her hut for holidays beside a raging sea, Eghalia Djimi offers me the three ritual cups of tea: the first is bitter as life, the second sweet as love, the third soft as death, the Saharawis use to say. I ask her which kind of justice her people would demand, to try to repair the bloodstained past. "I do not seek revenge," she specifies. "I only wish that Morocco would not put any more ostacles in the way of organizing the referendum, allowing our people to choose what they prefer, as it has happened in all the former colonies of the world: in the referendum they will be able to vote for the independence, or for the annexation to Morocco if they prefer, or for the autonomy under the Moroccan sovereignty as King Mohammed VI has been proposing for a longtime”. Then Elghalia smiles, with her unbelievable peacefulness, and says: “I have lost my hair and part of the sight, but in prison something special happened: I met my husband Dafah, he was being held too. We have loved each other since then, have five children. And we keep on smiling at life".
WESTERN SAHARA HISTORY
The Western Sahara is one of the very few cases left of incomplete decolonization in the world. When Spain withdrew in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania occupied it starting a war against the Polisario Front, the liberation movement of this land. It’s not just a desert: Western Sahara is very rich in phosphates, many foreign companies are searching for gas and oil, and its sea is one of the richest of fish in the world.
Mauritania left the conflict after few years. Morocco and Polisario went on until 1991, when they signed a cease-fire under UN auspices. Meanwhile, 200 thousand Sahrawis received asylum in south-western Algeria, around the town of Tindouf: here, in 1976, they proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), recognized by 82 countries and members of the African Union. According to judgement of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, it’s the right of the population to define in a referendum independence or annexation to Morocco. But so far the two parties have not agreed on the criteria to choose the voters.
The Polisario Front and representatives of the Moroccan kingdom meet in the US every year, but nothing changes. Next May, the special representative of UN General Secretary for Western Sahara, Mr. Christopher Ross, will go to El Ayun for the first time to understand better the situation there and to try to encourage new peace agreements.